Back in February of 2014, I saw something during an episode of Downton Abbey that caught my eye – formal conversation rules during dinner. Little did I know, two years later, I would have the opportunity to dine with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and find myself practicing those rules.
During the episode, the family was seated at dinner one evening and Mary was engaging in polite conversation with a gentleman suitor seated to her right. Mid-conversation, she politely smiled and said ‘time to turn’, as she then turned to the gentleman to her left to engage in conversation.
‘Back-in-the-day’ they followed formal conversation rules during dinner. The ladies were to keep an eye on their hostess and when the hostess ‘turned’ her conversation to the person on her opposite side, you were to follow suit. I have a fabulous book in my arsenal, ‘The Rituals of Dinner’, by Margaret Visser. In it she shares more detail on the topic:
“At the merest turn of the hostess’s head, from the guest on her left to the guest on her right, every couple has to interrupt their conversation. The women take the responsibility of turning in the direction the hostess has initiated; the gentlemen, turned from and turned to, merely submit. It would of course be exceedingly rude, not only to the host but to everyone present, to become so engrossed in conversation that you failed to notice the command, or refused to change partners; chorus line precision is required, or else at lest two people would be left ‘staring alone at the their plates.”
So there I sat, at a table of 10, one seat between me and the future King of England… pinching myself and in a bit of shock as to how in the world this was happening. I watched the Duchess of Cambridge engage in conversation with the guest on her left, and the Duke with the guest on his left, and the rest of us falling into step. I kept a watchful eye (but not a creepy stare) on the Duchess, and noticed as she turned her conversation, the Duke did as well, creating a domino effect as the rest of us followed suit.
Later during the meal, the conversations began to include three or four people with cross introductions and interesting banter. I found myself being brought into a riveting discussion on ivory trade with the lady from China to my right and the Duke, as she was seated between us. After that interesting discussion, we also were able to chat about much lighter topics such as Anthony Horowitz’s books (he was a guest and spoke at the event, he wrote the latest James Bond book ‘Trigger Mortis’, and the young teen series ‘Alex Rider’), George and Charlotte, and fun stories of William and Harry as young mischievous brothers.
Needless to say, I’m happy to have known about the formal conversation rules, and I sure hope that when you have your chance to implement them, you’ll have a fabulous story to share as well – and at the least, keep someone from staring alone at their plate!